Monday, 12 June 2017

The prisons of Lyon in 1793

Tableau des Prisons de Lyon,  pour servir à l’Histoire  de la Tyrannie de 1792 et 1793, par A. F. Delandine, cidevant bibliothecaire de Lyon, l'un des prisonniers.

Picture of the Prisons of Lyons, forming materials for a history of the tyranny of 1792 and 1793, by A. F. Delandine, formerly librarian at Lyons, and one of the prisoners.

Here are a few extracts from the Tableau des prisons de Lyon, one of the most important contemporary sources for the grim history of the Jacobin reprisals in Lyon in 1793.

The author

Antoine François Delandine (1756-1820) was an Avocat  in the Parlement of Dijon (1775), then the Parlement of Paris (1777) and in 1789 was elected as deputy to the Estates-General for Forez.  After the dissolution of the Constituent Assembly, he left Paris for Lyon and became librarian of the Lyon Académie. He supported the suspensive veto but opposed the King's detention. After protested against journée of 20 June 1792 he became a suspect, and was obliged to flee Lyon to take refuge in Néronde. He was subsequently arrested and imprisoned in the prison of the Recluses in the rue Saint-Joseph on the southern outskirts of Lyon until 9 thermidor.  In 1795 he participated in the organisation of a ceremony in in honour of the victims of the Seige of Lyon.  He was librarian of the Bibliothèque municipale from 1803 until his death. Delandine was a prolific journalist and writer. His history of his prison experiences was published in 1797.
See entry in Dictionnaire des journalistes


Commentary and extracts of Delandine's work appeared in English in various contemporary or near contemporary publications.  Rather than try and translate it myself, this is the entry from American periodical, The Port Folio,  for 1812:

The more prominent events of that disasterous period are sufficiently familiar to us all. But general description, however accurate, or highly coloured, excites only a feeble sympathy, compared with the minute detail of individual misfortune. Happily for human nature, our sensibility to the distress of others seems to weaken as its sphere enlarges—we may lament the misery of a nation—we may regret its ruin—but our tears are reserved for domestic sorrow; and, withdrawing our eyes from the loose indefinite gloom of public calamity, we fix them with an anxious interest on some wretched solitary victim, whose private wretchedness, or whose very name serves to render his situation more touching. With whatever vigour or brilliancy, therefore, the corruption of the cabinet, and the ravages of the army, the bloody scenes of the capital, and the devastation of the provinces may be depicted, it is from works like the present that the future Tacitus of France must draw his most afflicting representations. Composed in prison, with the objects described immediately before the writer, his work has every claim to authenticity, and we do not err in supposing that the interest which a perusal of it has inspired, will be equally felt by our readers, and by posterity. It will be remembered that in the year 1793, whilst the Jacobin faction predominated in France, Lyons was besieged by the republican army on some pretence of loyalty; that at last, reduced by death, and exhausted by famine, the city opened its gates to the deputies of the government. Among these was a wretch named Collot d'Herbois, who having been once hissed from the stage in this city, determined to revenge himself amply for his disgraces. In the very theatre itself he established a Jacobin club; a temporary commission of legal spies was created, and the persons denounced by them were carried before a tribunal of five members. An immediate proscription of all the respectable inhabitants, the clergy, the nobility, all who had taken a part in the siege, now began; and it is of this scene that the author has given a description. He was denounced, and fled to the country; but was taken at night and carried to a prison called the Cloister [prison des Recluses]— with what anticipations we may collect from the following account, which gives a clear view of the summary judgments of this tribunal:

 On my arrival at the cloister, it was occupied by about twelve hundred inhabitants of Lyons, who had been arrested since the siege. Of these it was calculated that at least four-fifths would be put to death, so that it was scarcely worth the trouble to think of safety. This was indeed, less a common prison than a vast sheepfold, where the victims quietly waited for the day on which they were to be butchered by the government. The first with whom I conversed on our common lot, and their frail hopes, did not escape the fatal knife. Among these were the honest Jourdan, who, believing that he could have nothing to fear, had himself carried, although he was sick, to the tribunal, which sent him to the scaffold; the good Sémenol de Montbrison, who was saying to all of us, "I am not afraid, for out of prudence, and to ensure my safety, I went twice to the Club."  Blanchi, full of honour, Goyot of Villefranche, an interesting and learned old man; his countryman Girardet, who hoped soon to be free, and offered to every prisoner to execute his commands with zeal. They were part of a hundred prisoners who left the cloister at eleven o'clock, arrived at the town-house after twelve, and at half after twelve, seventeen of them were already condemned and executed. Fifteen days before another hundred had been led out on the first day, and by the tenth, all except three fell under the axe. It was here, too, that I saw Irabert Granier, a man of great acquirements, but now keeping a constant silence. The architect Dupoux, arrested for having extinguished the fire in his own house, when it had been in flames from a bomb thrown during the siege; the two brothers Perussel, the youngest of whom said to me,  'They may do what they please with us now. My father, who was arrested, has been liberated; as for us, we are easy and can die without regret.' They both were soon after put to death.

The feelings of the prisoners in such a situation are equally well drawn. "It is in the cloister that the days seem to consist of more than twenty-four hours. We read and wrote, and played; but the continual images of ravage and destruction, the feebleness of their hopes, and the proof of their danger, had given to all the prisoners a stoical serenity. By the force of fearing they have ceased to fear. The sacrifice is already made; the mind is accustomed to it, and life seems like the rarest prize of this bloody lottery. The conversation partakes of this character; it is less serious than reflecting, always mild, and never desponding." They even sometimes amused themselves in a manner characteristic of the amiable levity and the buoyant spirits ef their countrymen. During the great crisis, only one song was made in the prison, but some time afterwards when a number were condemned to remain in prison till peace, and existence was therefore more certain, they recurred to every mode of lightening the burden of life. We doubt, indeed, whether the annals .of any, except a French prison, could supply so amusing a chapter of songs and charades, and bouts, rimés, and enigmas.

After remaining in this prison till the guillotine had cleared their way, a chain of prisoners were on the first day of every decade, led out from the cloister, and from the other two prisons, St. Joseph and Roanne, to the town-house, the great reservoir, where the tribunal sat. In one part of it, such as had not yet revived their trial, were crowded, to wait till it was their turn to be sacrificed. As the moment approached, their anxieties increased.

While the judges are sitting in the morning, from nine to twelve, and from seven to nine in the evening, nothing can be compared to the anguish of every prisoner, who is uncertain whether he is to be called before the tribunal. At every instant the doors are opened, and the keepers, whom they seem to have chosen for their coarse and sepulchral voices, cry out 'to the interrogatory, such a one advance and take your bundle.'  The accused shudders as he immediately takes this bundle, consisting of his basket and covering, and goes out with his eyes on the ground, and terror on his countenance. The door closes after him, and he scarcely ever returns again, being conducted at once either to the vault of delivery, or of death. He is now led to the vestibule before the hall of the court, where three or four prisoners are made to sit together, before they are introduced. They do not, however, wait long, for it is calculated that every quarter of an hour seven prisoners are called and judged; when the instant arrives, he is led before the judges, and seated on a stool; two soldiers stand by his side, behind is his introducer, who waits the signal of the judges. This is various. Commonly the judges touch the little axe suspended on their breasts, to designate the guillotine; put their hands to their foreheads in condemning the accused to be shot, and stretch their arms on the table as a sign of liberation. If one could choose the moment of his trial, the morning would be preferable; for in the evening, the judges are harrassed, worn down, and out of order from solicitations or drunkenness. The interrogatory is precise and short; often no more than three questions are asked—What is your name and profession? What did you do during the siege? Are you denounced? The answers are compared with the papers sent to the tribunal by the temporary commission. As soon as the sentence is pronounced, or the secret signal given, the jailer puts his hand on the shoulder of the accused, and saying, 'follow me'. leads him down stairs, either into the good or the bad vault; the first, the receptacle of those condemned to detention, the second, for those who were to be executed. Sometimes, however, after the first interrogatory, the prisoner is remanded into the great hall, till he is questioned a second time. This is an additional punishment. More than two hundred prisoners breathe the infected air of this hall, which was once the assembly room of the happy, at all their festivals, but is now devastated by bullets and bombs, the walls spoilt, the ceiling opened, to  admit the inclemency of the weather, the joists loose, and threatening the sick and wretched beings who are stretched on the straw beneath them. What increases the horror of this room is, that at half after twelve the judgments of death are distinctly heard, as they are pronounced on the steps of the townhouse; they hear too, the voices of the victims crying out, 'People, you are deceived—the republic needs no assassinations—I am falsely accused—I have not been questioned—1 have not had time to answer—they have mistaken me for another—abominable judges, you will perish—1 call you before God.' Oh, what a dreadful silence reigns among the prisoners; how all conversation is suspended, every countenance is painted with fright, an enormous weight is on every heart.  Presently is heard the soldiers' step leading off the condemned to another end of the square; then every stroke of the guillotine, the number of heads may be counted as they fall; but the windows are closed in order not to see them.

Massacre at Lyon, ordered by Collot d'Herbois.  Engraving of 1804
In the confusion of the crowd, many extraordinary mistakes occurred. The executioners themselves could not know all the prisoners, and had not time to identify persons, so that the safety or the death of a being, very often depended on their caprice, or their haste. Of this an instance is given in a wretched man, by the name of Revolliere, who was mingling among the crowd of prisoners, when the executioners came to bind him, and carry him off. He protested that they must have mistaken him for some other person—that he had never yet been interrogated— never even seen the judges. It was in vain—he was taken out and shot. A more fortunate case, was that of a curate, named Ivernal. He was already stripped and tied, when, just as they were about to carry him before the tribunal, the clerk came down to call over the list of names. Ivernal heard his own pronounced wrong, and declared that such was not his name. The clerk examined the register, and finding actually, that he had been mistaken for another person, had him released. A similar instance is given in a person by the name of Laurenson, who

Had been tried, and judgment given that be should soon be liberated; but. in the mean time he was detained with the prisoners. Whilst he was there, he received a very energetic remonstrance in his favour, and even those who had caused his imprisonment, retracted their denunciation. He considered this paper as no longer useful, since his life was now saved; but he had scarcely put it into his pocket when his name was called. He went out into the entry, where he was instantly tied to a file of other prisoners, and led towards the guillotine. Perfectly stupified, and scarcely believing that he did not dream, he was recalled to his senses, by seeing the important paper fall from his pocket. As one of the soldiers picked it up, Laurenson exclaimed to him, "If the judges could only have read it, 1 should not be put to death, but I have just received it." In a moment the soldier left his rank, and making his way through the crowd to the tribunal, exhibited the document and procured an order to stay the execution. As his deliverer hastened back, he found that a moment's delay would have been fatal. Laurenson was fortunately the last of forty persons who were to be guillotined. Thirty-nine had already fallen. He was already tied to the block, when the soldier arrived out of breath, cried out to stop, showed the order, and had the prisoner untied. He had in the mean time fainted, and was carried back to the town-house perfectly insensible. After bleeding him three times, he opened his eyes, but the dreadful impressions of the bloody spectacle deprived him of reason, and he was obliged to be carried to the hospital.

But these single trials exhausted the patience of the judges, who adopted, at last, a more expeditious scheme. Strings of prisoners were tried and executed in mass. It was thus, that sixty-nine of the flower of the youth were led out to be shot: and this was followed by another example of still more extensive barbarity.

It was from the prison of Roanne, that the two hundred and nine Lyonese, who were condemned in mass, during a single day, were led out to execution. Each one, indeed, scarcely did more than appear before the tribunal. A long rope was fixed to each tree of an alley of weeping willows; to this the condemned were tied with their hands behind their backs, and a picket of soldiers more or less strong placed at four steps before each of them. At a given signal the first shots began. Some had their arms carried off—some their jawbones—some a part of their heads. As they fell and raised themselves up, on every side was heard the frightful cries of 'finish me—my friends do not spare me', cries which resounded even on the other side of the Rhone. It was thus that all the executions were made, but the multitudes of the victims in this case, doubled the time of immolation. After it was accomplished, the bodies were stripped and thrown into deep ditches, where they were covered with lime and a little earth. On counting them, it appeared that there were two hundred and ten, instead of two hundred and nine, though one of the prisoners had broken loose from the chain, and escaped. It was then recollected, that in tying the prisoners in the court-yard of the prison, two persons had violently declared that they did not belong to the prison, but had been hired merely to do jobs for some of the prisoners. In spite of their remonstrances, however, they were tied like the rest, were forced to march, and had perished.

From this dreary waste of crime and destruction, we turn with pleasure to the various instances which are recorded of signal and heroic magnanimity. Fond, as we are, of every thing which vindicates our nature from the common charge of interested selfishness, we are cheered by the contemplation of such examples, which still prove, that no dangers can extinguish our affections, or our sense of duty. These principles lie deep in our nature—they sleep in the common intercourse of the world, and the superficial do not perceive them, till they are roused into energy, by the powerful stimulants of calamity. Thus, even among the inhabitants of Lyons, a plain manufacturing people, a soil not favourable, we might suppose, to the nobler virtues, a thousand examples occurred of the calmest contempt of death, and the proudest scorn of danger, or dishonour.

'I am sorry, said Dargeon, that they do not decide my fate sooner. What have I, indeed, to fear? The end of life, even in this world, is too often only a fatiguing servitude; here it is a punishment. To-morrow I will go voluntarily before the judges—I make you my adieus in advance.' The next day he presented himself to the tribunal, and his adieus were eternal.

The brother of one of the prisoners had been distinguished during the siege, and was afterwards denounced. The commissaries who were in quest of him, came to the house of the prisoner himself, and mistaking him for his brother, brought him before the tribunal, where he was condemned. He disdained however to correct an error which would be the means of saving his brother, and was fatal only to himself. He even congratulated himself on his devotion, though without thinking it at all extraordinary, and went joyfully to the scaffold.

Among others brought before the tribunal, was a young woman, who refused to wear a cockade. They asked her the reason of her obstinacy. 'It is not,' said she, 'the cockade itself which I hate, but since you wear it, it seems to be the signal of crimes, and it shall not be seen on my head.'  One of the judges made a sign to the guard, to tie one to her bonnet, saying to her, 'Go, in wearing this you will be saved.' She rose with great coolness, took off the cockade, and answering only, 'I give it back to you,' was led out to perish.

The greatest examples of cool firmness and courage, were particularly displayed by timid nuns, and humble curates. 'If your duty, said one of the latter, is to condemn us, obey your law; I, too, must obey mine, and it orders me to die.'

'Do you believe in Hell, asked they, of the curate of Amplepuy. 'How can I doubt it', replied he, 'when I see you, and hear what is passing; were I an infidel, this would convert me.'

Bourbon, curate of Agni, had passed forty years in the exercise of all the virtues, and in the midst of the poor, of whom he was the father. Perfectly calm, and determined on death, he regretted only the good which he might still have done. He sat down one day to write, and having finished his letter, blessed it, and then raising his hands to Heaven, addressed a fervent prayer. I was moved, and shared, without knowing them, his prayer and his feelings. When he came to his bed by the side of my own, I asked him the subject of his letter—he declined—but, as I ventured to insist, 'My friend,' said he, 'my sacrifice is already made. For more than thirty years I have had the happiness to consider death, and prepare myself for it. Should I go to purchase some feeble days, which remain, by rejecting publicly, the principles which I have taught during life, and which have seemed worthy of rendering men virtuous. But, before finishing my career, I had forgotten one duty, which I have just fulfilled with transport. I have written to the person who denounced me, and caused my arrest. Unhappy creature! he is more to be pitied than I am. I have thought of his torments, I have wished to soften them; I have blessed his existence, I have desired that his last hour should be tranquil and happy. 1 will shortly go to ask it, myself, from the God of mercy.' As Bourbon spoke, a ray of divine glory seemed to beam on his countenance. He was soon led to execution.

By the side of such examples, how low appear the equivocations, by widen the weak vainly hoped to escape.

A priest expected to save himself by feigning atheism. 'Do you believe in God,' said they to him: 'A little,' answered he. They instantly pronounced, 'Die, wretch, and go and acknowledge him.'

We shall close this article, by extracting an account of an attempt to escape, made by a number of prisoners. We offer no apology for its length; since we have never seen, even in the marvellous adventures of Trenk, a more lively representation of a similar incident.

 On the 9th of December, seventy-two prisoners were condemned, and transferred into the bad vault. The next day, being the decade, there was no execution; and Porral, one of the prisoners, determined to profit by this circumstance, and attempt an escape. His sisters, having by a bribe, of three thousand livres, obtained access to him, burst into tears. 'This, said Porral, is no time to weep—we must arm ourselves with activity, and try to escape. Bring me some files, a crow-bar, and other instruments, plenty of wine, and even daggers, for we must defend ourselves before we perish. Through that high narrow window, you can pass down every thing, and I will stay under it to receive them.' The sisters left him, and in the course of the day, brought the files and crow-bar, scissors, large butcher knives, twelve chickens, and more than sixty bottes of wine. Porral then joined four others of the most strong and adroit prisoners in the scheme. As soon as night came, they proposed a general supper; the last they should ever make. It was accepted, and during it, the prisoners exhort each other to brave tyranny, and die without weakness. The wine passed plentifully, till at length the greater part of the prisoners were overpowered by it, and went to sleep. At eleven o'clock, the conspirators began their work. One of them was placed as a sentinel with a dagger, to strike down the jailer, if in going his round at two o'clock he should appear to suspect any plot. The other four put off their clothes, and began to seek for a passage.

At the extremity of the second vault, there was a dark part, at the end of which they found a strong double door of oak. This they attacked. By degrees the hinges gave way, and the lead which soldered them was filed off. They then raised it with the crow-bar. Still the door would not open; again and again they tried, and could not conceive what held it. At last they widened, by means of the scissors, the hole till they saw that it was tied to a distant beam by a large rope fixed to a ring on the outside of the door, and neither the scissors, the crow-bar, nor the file could reach it This was a moment of despair, but a ray of hope succeeded. One of the workmen returned to the vault, and asked for a wax candle. The notary, Fromental, half asleep, recollected that he had a piece, got up and found it. With this the conspirator returned, and after unrolling it, and tying it to a thin piece of wood to make it reach as far as possible, lighted one end, and passing it through the hole, the rope took fire, and they soon opened the door. They closed it gently behind them, and now found that they were in a second vault, in the middle of which was a piece of free-stone, on the ground. They struck it lightly, and it returned a hollow sound. 'Might not this be the entrance of a canal which led towards the Rhone, and if the workmen, who made it, could pass in this direction, why cannot we?' This conjecture appeared certain. They cleared the earth from round the stone, and raising it with the crow-bar, saw, with transports of joy, a subterranean passage, which must have some outlet. In order to descend it, all their handkerchiefs were tied together, and Joseph la Batre holding by them, and supporting himself against the wall, reached the bottom. They passed down the light—he looked and sounded every where—another moment of distress and anguish—he found no door, no air hole, no means of going farther. The place seemed to be some neglected well, or rather some dungeon, which had, perhaps, formerly received its wretched victim. La Batre came up, and they now sought some other resource.

At the end of the vault there was still a door, which offered the only means of escape. They again set to work, but after breaking all that seemed to detain it, the door still resisted. As before, they made a hole, and on looking through, observed two large stones, one on top of the other, which propped it. They were forced to make another opening, through which they passed the crow-bar, and at the same moment raised the door with a stick of wood, which they fortunately found at hand. At last, the first stone gave way, fell on the ground, and with it the door swung open. Everything was then surmounted. The conspirators were now in a large deep vault, which was used as a national depot, for sequestered goods—a trunk full of shirts was open, and each of them took one in exchange for their own, covered with dirt and vermin.

This hasty toilet seemed a good omen. There were now two doors before them. After hesitating which to attack, they approached one, but scarcely had the file made a slight noise, when on the other side of the door, a dog growled, and began to bark—an instant terror seized them all —every arm was suspended—each workman was motionless with astonishment and terror. This door was near the jailer's lodge. They now recollected that this was the time at which he was to take his round, and that it would soon strike two o'clock. One of the conspirators went back to the first vault, to see if all was safe. In the mean time, the rest suspended their labours, and their strength being almost exhausted, they breakfasted. 'I am not fond of wine,' said one of them to me, 'but never did I drink any with more pleasure, than under this gloomy vault.  At every glass I felt my courage revive, and my arm strengthen. On this occasion, wine did seem to be the true support of misfortune.'

The man who had been sent to examine, now returned. On entering the first vault, he shuddered at seeing the jailer already there to take his round. This had, however, prevented his hearing the noise of his dog. The man placed as sentinel, requested him not to refuse him a last favour, which was, to empty a bottle of hermitage. They then sat down together, and when the jailer left them, he had drank so much wine, as to need sleep during the rest of the night.

They now resumed the work with rigour. They. leaving the fatal door where they had heard the dog, found that the other was a folding door closed by an iron bar, fixed to a chain of iron. At the first attempt the ring broke—the bar was raised, and the door opened. This was the end of their labours, which seemed to multiply, as they advanced. The door opened into a long entry. On one side they perceived a door, but as it opened towards the court-yard, they passed on to the end of the entry, where there was a second. Behind this they heard a noise—they listened, and through the cracks observed some men stretched on straw, before the embers of a fire. 'Can these be prisoners? Let us join them, anwe can escape together.' At that moment one of the men rose. He spoke Patois—he wore uniform, and mentioned the number of counter revolutionary brigands whom they intend soon to shoot. These brigands now discover that this is the guard. They have then come thus far to see all their hopes vanish. To what have all their fruitless labours and anxieties brought them? To a guard, who at the slightest noise, would alarm the whole soldiery. Despondency of mind, united with personal weariness.

Still, however, there was one hope left—the door which they had passed. They withdrew gently the bolt—the door opened—what sudden joy—they find the stair case which leads into the court-yard. Four o'clock and a half just then struck. The night was dark and cold—it rained and snowed at the same time. The associates embraced each other and prepared to escape, when one of them cried,'Wretches, what are you about to do—if we attempt to escape now, we are ruined—the eastern railing is now shut, and if we pass at this unusual hour, before the guard, the alarm  will be given. At eight o'clock every one has the liberty of going into the courtyard - the executioners will not come for us till after ten, and between eight and ten we  may all escape, for by suffering only three at a time to go every four minutes, they may mingle unperceived in the crowd.  During the three hours before us, let each of us reveal the secret to two other prisoners—we shall then be fifteen, and the last of that number will apprize fifteen others, till in this way we may all escape.  After having had the courage to come thus far, let us have that also of not going farther.' 

They had the firmness to yield; and returning to the vault, each began to choose those whom he would first save. Among the first, was Montellier, a man of mild and amiable character. 'I thank you, my friend, said he, but I do not wish to aggravate my case—I will tell you in confidence, that I have been mistaken for my brother—the judges are now convinced of it, and this very morning I am to obtain my liberty.' It is thus that hope trifles with man, even to his grave. At noon, Montellier was not in existence. They spoke also to the Baron de Chaffoy, a fine young man in the flower of his age. 'Life, said he, no longer offers me any charm—All the ties which bound me to it are broken. I had thirty thousand livres a year; they have taken it from me. They have just guillotined my father. His virtues did not merit such a lot—nor do I think that I deserve it, but I will submit.'  His courage was without ostentation—his resolution unshaken. In spite of intreaties, he remained, and wished to die. Fifteen were at length procured, and went to the head of the stairs. The first who ventured down was Porral. As he passed the sentinel, he said to him— 'Comrade, it snows—this is very bad weather—were I in your place, I would not wet myself, but go into the guard house.'  The sentinel thanked him, and followed his advice; after which the flight of the rest became much easier. The imprudence of the fifteenth destroyed the effects of the plan. According to the agreement, he was to have given noitice to only fifteen others—but, in his haste to escape, he cried out— 'Let everyone take care of himself—the passage is open.' The prisoners started up, and at first thought him out of his head. A few began to look for the outlet, when hearing the noise,the sentinels rushed in, secured the doors, and sounded the alarm. At ten o'clock, a domiciliary visit was made throughout the city, but of the fifteen who left the prison, only four were retaken.

In a work like the present, the style is a subject of altogether subordinate consideration. But the narration is sprightly; and, although not as methodical in some instances as might have been wished, yet, still presents a clear and spirited picture of the objects described.


 Antoine François Delandine, Tableau des prisons de Lyon, pour servir à l'histoire de la tyrannie de 1793 (1797)

 The Port Folio, vol. 7, 1812, p.102-12. "Picture of the prisons of Lyons".

The fullest English translation I have found is: 
Anne Plumptre A Narrative of Three Year's Residence in France (vol. 1, 1810) p.282f.

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